In early January this year, several days before the presidential inauguration, University of Washington professor Carl Bergstrom invited his colleague, Jevin West, over to his North Seattle house. Beers in hand, the two sat in the living room with their laptops, putting the finishing touches on the website for their new spring class, provocatively named “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.” They had talked about the class syllabus for months: a set of lessons that would help students detect and call out falsehoods and perversions of logic, a la George Orwell, not just in rhetoric but in the form of bogus statistics and shoddy mathematical analyses. At about 11pm, the syllabus went live, West went home, and they each “went to bed and thought, I hope that some of our friends have seen it and don’t think it’s too stupid,” Bergstrom says. By the morning, the online aggregator Boing Boing had already posted about it, 25,000 visitors had hit the class website, and Bergstrom and West’s email inboxes were overloaded with responses, media interview requests, and even a handful of book offers. In the weeks that followed, the pair was in nonstop demand: They have fielded requests from universities and high schools all over the world and been interviewed on television and radio for tips on how to fight for truth in the so-called post-truth era.
Neither Bergstrom nor West originally intended to fashion himself into a combatant of faulty logic and misinformation. Both trained in biology and eventually veered into data science. They began working together more than a decade ago. West says he’s uncomfortable with swearing, and that his upbringing in conservative, small-town Idaho made it especially hard to call bullshit on other people, out of politeness. Even now, he says he often keeps quiet until the stench of falsehood becomes so intolerable that “finally I can’t take it any longer.” But the two have become experts at preventing the spread of bullshit through the sciences. They are frequently asked to review research findings for academic journals, weeding out bad statistics and weak analyses. Sometimes their work has helped call attention to potential snafus: About 10 years ago, Bergstrom used a mathematical model to show the World Health Organization that its plan for fighting bird flu might not work—which helped prompt the organization to change its approach.
Their course—which runs this spring on the UW campus with an enrollment of about 160 students—is especially timely during a presidential administration that unabashedly wields alternative facts. But the class content isn’t meant to be political. Bullshit can crop up in any field (and on either side of the political spectrum), and both feel it’s especially important now to train students to spot those falsehoods and distortions. The syllabus promises to offer tips for accessible bullshit calling, including means to persuade “your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle.”
Both professors say you don’t need a statistics background to spot bullshit. One of the first principles: “If something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” says West. Next, question your source: Consider how someone knows what they know, and whether they have a lot to gain from making a particular argument. You can also look for common logical fallacies: For instance, if two things are correlated, like cat ownership and liberal political leanings, that doesn’t mean adopting a feline will lead a conservative to start voting for Democrats. Numbers can also mislead or misconstrue if they are used without clear context. For example, a report this past December on Fox News decried tens of millions of dollars of food-stamp fraud, but didn’t clarify that such scams are extremely rare and amount to less than one-thousandth of total spending on federal food assistance.
Perhaps most importantly, the professors say, you should be wary of your own biases and never assume something is true just because you want it to be. They note that Seattleites are vulnerable to their own brands of bullshit, especially when it comes to their enthusiasm for alternative health and their distrust of the medical establishment.
“Some of my friends…won’t give their kids vaccines because they think there’s a link between these vaccines and autism,” says West, even though ample research has found no plausible connection between the two. “Even if you show them the data, it’s hard to convince them.”
West and Bergstrom are now allowing 30 universities in the U.S. and countries like Portugal, Australia, Denmark, and France to use their materials to develop their own versions of the antibullshit class. A professor at IT University of Copenhagen is already teaching nearly the same course to PhD students this spring. Bull-shit, and the need to counteract it, seems to be a culturally universal dilemma.